Four More Tigers for the Hall of Fame

From left: Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Bobby Veach, and Lou Whitaker.

Next month two former Tigers will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Jack Morris and Alan Trammell, key members of the 1984 World Champions, will earn their plaques in Cooperstown and take their place among baseball’s legends.

Morris and Trammell waited about as long as you could to be elected. Both spent the maximum 15 years on the ballot, and both were controversial candidates with supporters and detractors. That debate doesn’t matter any longer: their place is baseball history is secure. There is no back door into the Hall of Fame.

After Tram and Morris, when will Tiger fans see their next hero enshrined? Current star Miguel Cabrera is a lock, whether he ever drives in another run. Out for the 2018 season, Cabrera is clearly in the latter stages of his great career, but his credentials are off the charts. He’s won two Most Valuable Player awards, the triple crown, and four batting titles. All of those accomplishments came while wearing a Detroit uniform.

Besides Cabrera and former ace Justin Verlander, who’s also building a strong case for Cooperstown, there are a handful of former Tigers who deserve a look by the Hall of Fame. These players last donned a uniform years ago, in fact for most of them you’d have to be an old school fan to remember them.

Here are the four best current candidates for the Hall of Fame among former Tigers.

Mickey Lolich

Pros: Started and won three complete games in the 1968 World Series, including Game Seven on two days rest. Lolich won more than 200 games and finished his career with more strikeouts than any other left-hander in the history of the American League (he held that mark for more than 40 years). In 1971 he led the AL with 25 wins, 29 complete games, and 308 strikeouts. He pitched an incredible 376 innings that season and finished second in Cy Young Award voting. He finished third in Cy Young voting in 1972. Lolich was one of the most prolific pitchers of his era, averaging 42 starts, 22 complete games and 319 innings from 1970-74.

Cons: Lolich had a 217-191 career, his .532 winning percentage would be one of the lowest in the Hall of Fame. In large part due to his heavy pitching load, Lolich was done by the age of 35, serving as a relief specialist his final two seasons, which meant he was unable to reach milestones like 250 wins or 3,000 strikeouts. His career ERA+ was only 104, meaning his ERA was only 4 percent below league average.

Stat: Mickey stepped up for his team when they needed him: in five post-season starts he was 3-1 with a 1.57 ERA and three complete games.

Hall of Fame Comparison: Catfish Hunter, who had the fortune of pitching for better teams, but who was very comparable to Lolich.

Chances: Lolich was on the Hall of Fame writers ballot for the max 15 years, peaking at 25 percent. He’s had little to no support to appear on a veterans ballot in recent years. Lolich was a top-notch pitcher who was overshadowed by flashier performers in his era like Vida Blue, Nolan Ryan, and Luis Tiant.

Bill Freehan

Pros: For about a decade from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, Freehan was the best and most consistent catcher in the American League. He was named to the All-Star team 11 times and won four Gold Gloves. In 1967 he was third in AL MVP voting and the following year he was second. Freehan was an excellent catcher who handled the pitching staff expertly and controlled the running game.

Cons: His batting stats look a bit deflated because he played during a depressed offensive era. Freehan’s 1,591 hits and 758 RBIs are not high totals, even for a catcher. He never led the league in any offensive category other than HBP (three times). There are a few other catchers not in the HOF who are better candidates, namely Ted Simmons and Thurman Munson. While Freehan was very good and clearly rates as the best catcher in his league who had his career span the 1960s and early 1970s, he is not on par with the catchers before (Yogi Berra) or after (Carlton Fisk) him.

Stat: Freehan hit exactly 200 home runs: 100 at home and 100 on the road.

Hall of Fame Comparison: Rick Ferrell. Freehan was a much better hitter than Ferrell and probably just as good defensively.

Chances: Freehan ranks 15th all-time in JAWS (WAR adjusted for career and peak performance) among catchers, but he has never had any support for inclusion on the veterans committee ballot. In 2017, Ted Simmons missed election by one vote via that committee, it’s unlikely that Freehan will ever get consideration.

Bobby Veach

Pros: Led the American League in runs batted in three times, and also led the league in hits, doubles, and triples. From 1915 to 1922, he ranked in the top five in RBIs, extra-base hits, total bases, and slugging percentage in the AL. He has a career .310 batting average, more than 2,000 hits, 1,100 RBIs, and nearly 200 stolen bases. Was part of one of the greatest outfields in baseball history, with center fielder Ty Cobb and right fielder Sam Crawford.

Cons: Suffered by comparison with outfield partners and teammates Cobb and Crawford, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Veach benefited from having that pair (and leadoff man Donie Bush) batting in front of him, which is a large part of the reason he averaged 107 RBIs in his prime.

Stat: From 1914 to 1922, a span of nine years, Veach missed only ten games.

Hall of Fame Comparison: Heinie Manush. Veach had a very similar batting record to the other Tiger Hall of Fame outfielder, but he never led the league in batting, while Manush won one batting crown.

Chances: No chance in hell.

Lou Whitaker

Pros: Teamed with Alan Trammell to form the longest double play combination in history. The duo appeared in a record 1,918 games as teammates. Whitaker’s batting record is very similar to that of Trammell, who earned election to the Hall of Fame via the veterans committee in 2017. Whitaker ranks in the top ten among second basemen in games played, times reached base, and extra-base hits. He was the fifth player at his position to hit 200+ career homers. He won three Gold Gloves and was named Rookie of The Year. He performed very well on the big stage: hitting a home run and having a good record in All-Star Games, and playing well in the post-season in 1984. His career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) ranks seventh all-time among second basemen, ahead of Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and Craig Biggio, as well as other Hall of Famers at the position.

Cons: Whitaker’s peak performance was low. Based on his best seven seasons according to WAR, he ranks below Chuck Knoblauch, Ian Kinsler, and other non-Hall of Famers. He failed to reach 2,500 hits and was a platoon player the last 4-5 seasons of his career. Whitaker never had a great defining season and never led the league in any offensive category other than games played.

Stat: Lou Whitaker is one of only five second basemen in baseball history with more than 2,000 hits, 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBIs, and 1,000 walks. The others are Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, and Craig Biggio.

Hall of Fame Comparison: Ryne Sandberg. Whitaker had a better career and unlike Ryno, he didn’t play in a park that helped his power numbers.

Chances: Sweet Lou is arguably one of the 2-3 most deserving (non-steroids tainted) candidates. But after missing in his one year on the writers ballot he hasn’t been given a chance via any committee voting body. He might get stuck in the category of “very good but not great.”